Oldboy (2003) | Dir.: Park Chan-Wook | Cast: Min-sik Choi; Ji-tae Yu; Hye-jeong Kang | ***CONTAINS SPOILERS***
Park Chan-Wook’s revenge-feuled thriller, Oldboy (2003), explores the depths of insanity and captivity before digressing into incestuous relationships and vengeance. This film has achieved international success even though being in the Korean language and is placed 85th in IMBD’s top 250 films. It has won multiple awards, including the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes Film Festival in 2004 and has received critical acclaim from top film critics, such as Roger Ebert who stated, ‘We are so accustomed to ‘thrillers’ it’s a shock to find a movie in which the action, however violent, makes a statement and has a purpose’. A Hollywood remake is also in the works for release in 2013 directed by Spike Lee and film fans are waiting eagerly to see if it lives up to the brilliance of Chan Wook’s original.
The film follows Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi) who is portrayed from the outset as a drunk, unreliable and violent character who has missed his daughter’s birthday and remains in police custody after being heavily intoxicated. After being bailed out by an old acquaintance, he is then abducted and trapped in a seemingly bland hotel room. It then becomes clear that Dae-su is being held captive by unknown enforcers and his life is being controlled by these mysterious guards. A tune is played, followed by gas, which sends Dae-su into unconsciousness where his room is cleaned, body washed and hair cut, which leads to further confusion as to who is keeping him imprisoned. Dae-su finally subsides to his captors and begins writing scriptures about all the people he has hurt in his life as well as constantly being fixed to his T.V. And from his T.V he learns that his wife has been murdered and all the clues point towards him, seemingly only to explain his absence to the outside world.
15 years passed and without explanation Dae-su is released from the confinement of his room. Dae-su has went through a transformation during his prolonged entrapment and his relations with the outside world are seemingly non-existent. Dae-su then meets Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang) who takes pity on Dae-su and allows him to stay at her house after he receives a phone call from his kidnapper and passes out in Mi-do’s restaurant. As Dae-su beings the journey, with his love interest Mi-do, he intends to find his captors and seek the ultimate revenge, exclaiming he won’t stop until he does. It comes clear that Dae-su has been held captive by Woo-jin Lee (Ji-tae Yu), who sends Dae-su on another expedition to understand why he kept him captive for 15 years. Dae-su asks why does he not just assault Woo-jin, who then explains he has a pacemaker with a button he can press at anytime to stop his heart, with the explanation of Dae-su’s captivity being unknown forever.
After many typical Asian horror scenes from torture to the, unmissable stamp of martial arts, in the fight scenes Dae-su tracks down the reason he was held captive and returns to the villainous Woo-jin, who is reminiscent of a Bond-like villain, and confronts him. After Dae-su reveals the incest relationship Woo-jin forced upon his sister, Lee So-aah (Yoon Jin-seo), after his boy-like voyeurism got the better of him watching them in a tower of their school, Woo-jin explains how it was Dae-su who spread the rumour that impregnated his sister. With the shame of carrying her brother’s child, So-aah kills herself at a nearby dam leaving Woo-jin hellbent on revenge and which explains the reasoning behind Dae-su’s imprisonment.
Dae-su expresses his anger and exclaims how it was not his fault that Woo-jin committed such horrific acts. Then comes the twist that, Oldboy, is arguably famous for. I believe great films are the ones that keep you guessing until the very end and in this case Chan-Wook’s genius is shown in his depiction of the final moments and realisation of Dae-su’s capture. Woo-jin explains how hypnosis was used to control Dae-su’s life outside his prison and after being handed a family photo album the true horror engulfs Dae-su as he realises he has committed the worse crime possible. After Dae-su’s incestuous relationship with his own daughter, Mi-do, Woo-jin believes he has avenged Soo-aah’s death and enforced the worse type of vengeance on Dae-su, causing much more torment than a simple killing.
The genius of Chan-Wook is shown throughout this film both visually and creatively, and with his recent Hollywood release, Stoker (2013), it seems Chan-Wook is being given the chance to announce himself on, arguably, the most valuable stage in cinema. Admittedly, I haven’t had much experience in Asian cinema but I believe this film would be enjoyable for the majority of film fans with its fantastic story line even if the values and themes are immoral. Ebert’s comment was spot on when commenting on this film as the violence and incestuous themes, yet horrible, are not used for no purpose but give the film powerful messages and the ultimate sucker-punch blow of realisation could not be anymore forceful.